When Cultural Faux Pas and Inadvertent Rule-Breaking Lead to Detention


US citizen Shezanne Cassim and four other men are currently being detained in United Arab Emirates for making a satirical film about a fictional martial arts school in Satwa neighborhood of Dubai.  The 20-minute film, which follows the format of shows like Fight Quest and Human Weapon begins with the film makers visiting the fictional “Satwa Combat School” and meeting the instructor Saloom Snake to learn about his system.  A link to the New York Times article and the You Tube video is here:


Dubai authorities clearly didn’t think the film was funny and Cassim and his cohorts are facing charges of threatening national security and endangering public order.  While this may seem strange to many western observers, this incident really illustrates the risk of not knowing or unintentionally violating local rules.  This problem is particularly acute in locations where there may be mixed messages.  There is the Dubai that is known for its incredible shopping malls, indoor skiing, the Palm Jumeirah and its upscale nightclubs and bars.  Many visitors and expatriates have no issue in Dubai and most don’t even feel like they are in the Middle East.  This can create a dangerous complacency.  While the UAE is in no way as conservative as Saudi Arabia, there are conservative elements there and laws that may have been unwittingly violated can be enforced strictly.

This is true in many locations around the world.  Local laws and cultural mores may be very different from what western travelers and expatriates are accustomed to in their home countries of even in foreign countries that are more like their own.  Many of us have grown up in societies where questioning authority was completely permissible and often the norm.  This is not the case in many countries.  Insulting the king is a criminal offense in Morocco and Thailand for example.

Additionally actions you take and things you possess may also result in detention by local authorities.  Travelers in the developing world and in security-conscious countries need to be very careful about what they photograph.  One classic example is taking pictures at the airport, which will get you arrested in some countries or at least get the camera confiscated.  The same is true for photographing other critical infrastructure like ports, bridges, etc. as well government buildings, police & military personnel and political activity.  Carry a satellite phone is prohibited in some countries, requires special licensing in others and will draw unwanted attention in others.  This is not to say you should never carry one but check local laws and weigh the need before traveling.  We have two other articles that further address this issue:  Blending in and the Gray Man (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/?s=gray+man) and Sanitize Yourself for Travel (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/sanitize-yourself-for-travel).

Other activities like promoted your religious beliefs or taking part in local political activities such as demonstrations and protests can get you arrested and detained.  Sometimes the enforcement come at the hands of local citizens and not the authorities, especially if the activity is not technically illegal.


Dangerous Business

Hole - Peter Shaw


If you do business in an international environment then chances are you deal with a wide range of people with different ideas about acceptable business practices, business ethics, conflict resolution and competition.  While some of these people may hold views very similar to yours many others may have a different perspective.   Generally speaking the further you go off the beaten path the more pronounced these differences may be.

Whether you are aware of it or not you may run afoul of one of these people.  Either by posing competition to their business, refusing to pay bribes or engage in corruption, by choosing or failing to choose a certain vendor or business partner.  In many places members of the police, military and security forces also have private sector business interest and can present a formidable threat if you find yourself in a business dispute with them.

Consider the story of Peter Shaw, a Welsh banker working for the European Commission in Tbilisi, Georgia.  Shaw was in Georgia providing consulting to the Georgian banking sector.  In June 2002, just days before he was supposed to complete his assignment and leave Georgia, Shaw was kidnapped off a Tbilisi street by heavily armed attackers in paramilitary uniforms.  He was then held captive for five months, four of them in a subterranean cell in the Pankisi Gorge under deplorable conditions, the details of which he recounts in his book Hole: Kidnapped in Georgia.  While it was never conclusively proven that his kidnapping was related to his work in banking there were strong indications that it was.  It’s possible that Shaw’s work to improve the Georgian banking sector put him at odds with powerful people who were using the financial system for their own enrichment.

While Shaw’s case is an extreme example, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls that may exist in the country or countries where you are conducting business.   How do you counteract this risk?  It’s difficult but due diligence on potential partners and associates and a thorough assessment of the business sector in that country is one initial step you can take.  Knowing who the key players are and what businesses they are in is a good beginning.  Another is a simple awareness of the threat and practicing good personal security measures and operational security.


Mindsetting & Personal Security

While working on a project on kidnapping prevention techniques recently the subject of mindsetting came up.  By mindsetting we mean spending time considering potential situations that may occur and thinking through potential responses.  This will help you develop a gameplan or a framework for responding to potential threats.


The principle of mindsetting is discussed in detail by Sanford Strong in his 1996 book Strong on Defense.  I highly recommend Strong on Defense – though a little dated it provides very clear and straightforward guidance for preparing to face violent crime.  My only caveat is that the book is very US-centric and some of the guidance is a little too black-and-white so readers should take that into consideration – otherwise it’s very good.  Strong goes into detail about factors to consider with mindsetting and visualization.


Back to mindsetting:  When doing this you need to concentrate on the more likely possible situations that might occur and practical effective potential responses.  To the degree possible you should choose simple responses that can be applied across several different situations.  Giving yourself too many responses can lead to paralysis should a situation occur.  As an example if you are living or traveling in a place where criminals, insurgents or others set-up unauthorized roadblocks and stop vehicles to carry out robberies and kidnappings you should consider what actions you should take if you encounter one of these roadblocks.  If you use a driver you will want to discuss this with the driver and even consider conducting immediate action drills to practice what you will do if the threat level warrants it.  By doing this you prepare yourself and hopefully will be able to respond more effectively if an incident happens.  Even if you have to shift from your original plan – and you should leave yourself the flexibility to do that – you will at least start with a roadmap for action in place.


This is an exercise that you can do anywhere and should do regularly – especially if you are operating in a high threat environment.  This does not have to be limited to physical responses – you can do it for numerous other types of situations as well.  For example if you are working or living in a location where there is a high threat of detention and possibly interrogation by the local authorities you may want to work through verbal responses or scripts to prepare yourself for that type of situation.


This type of mental preparation can cut reaction time and allow you to have a more thought-out response even when there is no time for thinking because you have already considered the situation, or one very much like it and determined how you will respond.  You can use newspaper articles, incident reports and other sources about the type of events that occur in the environment where you are operating to devise the most realistic scenarios.


Not in Kansas anymore…

Secure area of Basra, Iraq Airport

One of the greatest challenges in protecting a global workforce and training travelers and personnel undertaking overseas assignments is getting them to understand that the individual rights they enjoy in their home country don’t
travel with them overseas.  This is particularly true of Americans who are imbued from an early age with the concept of individual freedoms and civil rights.  These are noble qualities that are unfortunately absent in much of the world.

When Americans and other citizens of western democracies travel abroad for the most part their individual rights do not travel with them.  In a foreign country you are subject to local laws whether you agree with them or not
and if you break them there is very little your embassy can do to assist you.  Concepts like innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, fair and speedy trial and so forth are alien in many foreign countries.  The embassy or consulate may be able to assist with finding you legal representation and will visit you to check on your health and well being but will likely be powerless to
assist you beyond that.  You could languish for weeks or months in confinement before even seeing a judge.  This is more a concerning in developing nations and less so in other democracies – although Amanda Knox who was tried for murder in Italy would probably disagree with that statement.  Regardless of your opinion of Knox’s innocence or guilt and although she was ultimately released few would say she got a fair trial or fair treatment in the Italian legal system.

We touched on this briefly before in our discussion about personal security myths but it is well worth addressing in greater detail.  It is such a common and pervasive vulnerability – especially with novice travelers that it warrants closer examination.

It’s important to know about the local laws and social mores of the place where you are visiting, working or
living.  This means understanding that some behavior and activities that are perfectly legal and acceptable at home may be illegal in the country where you are located.  Even if you are not technically breaking a law you may be violating a social taboo or custom that can cause problems for you.  Many people use language “respect for the local culture”.  I don’t like this particular verbiage as it implies a level of agreement or acceptance of the particular culture.  That culture may include denying women the right to an education and other basic rights, use of child soldiers, capital punishment for adultery and other things that are reprehensible.  I don’t think these things need to be “respected” but we do need to be aware of their place in the local landscape and
our inability to change them.

For your own safety and self preservation though you do need to be aware of potential pitfalls.  I also don’t want to overstate the problem and give the impression that foreign jails are full of innocent Americans and other westerners.  Let’s be clear: a large number of the western citizens imprisoned overseas are in jail for drug offenses and the majority are guilty.  They may be serving sentences or under conditions that seem harsh by our standards but most are guilty.  That said there are people detained for crimes that would not be considered illegal in most western democracies.

Here are some areas that can cause you to inadvertently break local laws and run afoul of local authorities.  I have intentionally
omitted blatant crimes that are illegal almost everywhere like drug trafficking.  Obviously there is a lot of variation from country to country:

  • Involvement in local politics:  Becoming involved in local politics by supporting one political party or another, advocating democracy and things of that nature are likely to draw unwanted attention from local police and security forces as well as militias and other informal groups supporting the ruling or opposition party.  I recognize that some non-governmental
    organizations (NGOs) have this specific type of activity as their mission.  In those cases its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Proselytizing: Spreading religious messages, holding religious services and attempting to convert local people is considered criminal in many countries – in particular, but not exclusively in the Muslim world.  Again – I recognize this is the
    specific mission of many faith-based groups.  As with NGOs mentioned above  its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Questionable business ventures and partners:  In the discussion on dealing with local partners we covered this topic fairly well.  Suffice to say getting involved with questionable business dealings and partners can create local legal troubles for you.  Also
    unscrupulous local partners, customers or vendors can use the local legal system to their advantage to gain leverage in business disputes.
  • Photographing critical infrastructure and government buildings:  Behavior that could be mistaken for intelligence gathering may cause you to be arrested and charged with espionage.  Taking pictures or airports, military bases, presidential residences, government buildings and the like can get you into a great deal of trouble.  This is especially true in the coup-prone countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.  In fairness to those governments that type of activity can be mistaken for reconnaissance.  Foreigners arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 were in fact an advance team planning to overthrow the
    ruler of that country.
  • Adoption:  Adoption in some foreign countries can be a perilous process if not done correctly and in coordination with reputable
    organizations.  Some governments have viewed adoption efforts as human trafficking.  In one recent case in West Africa an American couple was detained on suspicion of human trafficking and were only released after high level diplomatic involvement.
  • Public Drunkenness:  In a number of countries in the Middle East — even some where alcohol is permitted public drunkenness is a serious crime.
  • Religious/Social Infractions:  These include things such as inappropriate dress, public displays of affection, adultery, possession
    of literature or media deemed “pornography” by local standards.  Several Gulf countries impose fines and even confinement for Ramadan offenses (even by foreigners/non-Muslims).

Its important to keep in mind that when in a foreign country you are subject to its laws and behave accordingly.

Security Considerations When Working with Local Contacts


If you are working overseas or traveling internationally for business then you probably deal with local contacts of some type.  They may be local representatives, partners, vendors or suppliers, customers or others.  While most interaction with local contacts will be valuable and productive there are potential security concerns to be aware of and to think about.

For this discussion we won’t be looking closely at fraud or compliance issues associated with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or similar legislation.  Those are very worthy issues to examine but well beyond the scope of this post.  Instead we’ll look at some of the other concerns that can arise.

It goes without saying that you should do a thorough due diligence on local contacts but the reality is that you may not be able to achieve it in every situation based on the timeline or other factors.  Also — to be frank — the ability to do an effective due diligence in many locations is very limited – especially on short notice.

Its reasonable to expect that at a minimum your contact will have a different perspective and world view than you do.  There will likely be different expectations or what is acceptable.  In some cases though the contact may have a separate agenda or hidden motives that can put you at risk.

Some situations that can occur that you should be aware of:

  • Misrepresentation: Local contacts that misrepresent themselves or their affiliation with your organization.  If they engage in illegal activity while misrepresenting themselves it can have direct and severe implications for your and your company.
  • Allegations of criminal or unethical conduct against you or your organization:  customers, vendors or others can put pressure on you by alleging misconduct to local law enforcement authorities.
  • Honey traps: Local contacts may try to put you in compromising positions with local women — either to create a situation where they can blackmail you outright or at least make you vulnerable to them.
  • Unlawful detention: In some cases local contacts may detain you — either physically or through use of threats — to get you to agree to their terms.
  • Kidnapping:  In extreme circumstances your contacts may set you up for kidnap for ransom.  There was a notable case in Mexico about 10 years ago where a US businessman was set-up for a kidnapping by his Mexican partner.
  • Guilt by association:  In some instances your contacts may be involved in activities that make them a target of law enforcement, criminal groups or both.  If you are with them you may be the victim of arrest or a violent attack.
  • Hidden ties: In some cases your local contacts may have ties to foreign intelligence services or extremist groups.  Even though they may not act against you immediately they may be gathering information about you or your organization.

How can you mitigate your exposure to these potential threats?

Of course the first answer is know who you are dealing with — but as we discussed earlier that is not always too easy.

One thing you can do is not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s not uncommon for local contacts to make some or all of your arrangements when you are visiting their country — often everything from your hotel to your ground transportation.  I suggest you may not want to always let them do it.  It takes more work but if you make your own arrangements it gives you greater flexibility.  If you have your own ground transportation set up apart from them it is easier to come and go as you please.  You should also consider making other appointments and establishing other contacts while there.  This gives you a legitimate reason to excuse yourself if a situation becomes uncomfortable and it reduces the control they have over you.  Many of the scenarios outlined above are more likely to occur if you are completely dependent on them.  If you have other contacts and your own transportation it goes a long way to keeping them off-balance.  They don’t know who you know or who you may be able to turn to for assistance.  It may sound excessive or paranoid but compartmentalizing your activities gives you more control and if your contacts have bad intentions it can make it more difficult for them to act against you.

You should also make sure that someone in your head office, your family or both has all the names and  contact information for the people you are planning to meet with and any itinerary you may have.  In a worst case scenario if you go missing there will at least be some baseline information to use in initiating a search.

Self-Driving vs. Hiring a Driver — The Pros and Cons

Traffic in Karachi, Pakistan

One of the questions for expatriates and many travelers is whether to hire a local driver or drive themselves.  There are pros and cons associated with both choices and its important to recognize and consider them when making a decision.
This discussion focuses on expatriates and travelers in developing countries where this decision is much more critical and the potential pitfalls of making the wrong choice are much greater.  Let’s look at each option:
 Hiring a Driver:

  • The local driver will/should know the geography of the area, can find different locations more readily than you might be able to and will know local traffic patterns at different hours of the day, etc.
  • The local driver will know the driving etiquette in the area and will be less likely to inadvertently cause offense to other drivers, etc.
  • The local driver will know the proper procedure when stopped by the police and will know how to deal with the situation.
  • With a hired driver you are free to focus on situational awareness and detecting possible surveillance or threats in the environment without the distraction of driving in an unfamiliar city, following directions, etc.
  • If you are involved in an accident the driver will generally be the one held responsible and not you.
  • You can assign the driver to guard the car when you are at meetings, etc.  Therefore the car is not left unattended and is not as vulnerable to being tampered with, having items stolen from it or having the vehicle itself stolen.
  • You don’t need to worry about parking the vehicle when you disembark to do other things such as attend meetings, go shopping, etc.  The driver can remain with the vehicle and pick you up when requested.


  • You are literally trusting your life to the driver.  A bad or reckless driver can be very dangerous and the driver may not be trained to deal effectively with a security incident should one occur.
  • You give up some independence relying on the driver.  The driver may be tardy, get lost or otherwise compromise your effectiveness.
  • You will have some level of OPSEC risk with the driver.  The driver will know where you go, who you meet with and other information that may make you vulnerable.


  • You take your fate in your own hands literally.  You are much more in control of your own life when you self-drive.
  • You can potentially respond better to a security incident.  If you already have – or if you obtain quality training in security/evasive driving techniques you will be better prepared than almost all but the best trained drivers to respond to a security incident when you are traveling in a vehicle.
  • You have greater personal and operational security because you do not need to advise another person of your plans.
  • You will become familiar with the area where you are living much more quickly because by self-driving you will be forced to learn the local streets, etc.


  • You are liable in the event you are involved in a vehicle accident.  As a foreigner you may be judged to be at fault even if you are not.  This can result in you being jailed even for minor infractions.  This is one of the greatest vulnerabilities of self-driving in developing world countries.
  • Traffic patterns and driving styles are usually very different (and in many ways much worse) than most western visitors and expatriates are accustomed to in their home countries.
  • You are potentially more vulnerable if stopped by local law enforcement or security forces while driving.  They may see this as an opportunity to extort money from you.
  • Parking can be difficult in many congested third world cities and finding safe, acceptable parking near your destination can be very time consuming and difficult.
  • If you need to leave the vehicle unattended in some locations depending on the security situation you may need to do a search of the vehicle before entering it and departing.  Not only is this time consuming but it can leave you vulnerable while you are distracted and focused on searching the vehicle.

In conclusion the decision on whether to self-drive or hire a driver is a personal that should be made based on the environment you are operating in, your capabilities, the resources available to you and a review of the considerations above.
In a future post we’ll discuss working with local drivers.

Sanitize Yourself for Travel


Shanghai, China — Data on computers and other devices is vulnerable

You don’t need to cut the tags out of your clothes but before traveling abroad its important to think about things that you are carrying, either on your person, in your bags or electronically in your devices that may cause trouble for you with foreign authorities.  In the earlier post on being the gray man and blending in we discussed clothing.  This time we will focus more on the types of things that you might be carrying that may cause unnecessary problems.  I am not suggesting that you never carry these types of things when you travel – only that you give it some consideration in the context of your trip.

Here are some categories to consider:

  • Military or government ID.  If you are a reservist, a government contractor or otherwise have some type of government ID you may want to leave it at home if you are traveling on private sector business.  Obviously this doesn’t apply if you are going to need the ID on your trip.


  • Reading material, videos and other media that might be considered offensive in the country you are traveling to.  This is particularly true in some of the more conservative Islamic countries.


  • Military style clothing such as camouflage or 5.11 clothing.  In many developing nations police and military authorities tend to view military clothing negatively and may not understand that you are wearing for durability, comfort, etc.


  • Police or military paraphernalia such as body armor, handcuffs, batons, magazines, shell casings, etc.  Even countries like United Arab Emirates have issues with this and have detained travelers with this sort of gear in their luggage.


  • Political material and media that may be offensive to the host government or contrary to its policies.


  • Satellite phones and GPS units.  These are viewed with suspicion – and in some places outright illegal – particularly in countries with a history of coups, political instability or foreign intervention.


  • Computers and other devices with encryption software loaded on them.   In some countries this is illegal and in some others while legal it may draw unnecessary scrutiny.


  • Sensitive company information.  It goes without saying that you should limit the amount of proprietary information you carry with you when traveling abroad.  Foreign governments can and sometimes will gain access to this information if they choose to examine your computer and other devices as part of a security or customs check on arrival or departure.  In some cases they may also surreptitiously access it during your stay.


  • Sensitive personal information.  You want to be cautious about carrying sensitive personal information like banking and financial information, personal contact information and the like that may be compromised.


  • Medications.  Be aware of what medications can be legally carrier into your destination and any restrictions that may exist such as the need for a prescription, prior approval from the host country Ministry of Health, etc.


  • Passport Stamps and Visas.  The classic example if the presence of an Israeli stamp in your passport barring you from entry in some Arab and Muslim countries.  If you have passport entries that might be problematic at your destination country then consider getting a new passport in advance.  DO NOT tear pages or visas out of your passport.  This is a crime many places and will cause you serious problems if detected.

The above guidelines are very situationally dependent — they are going to vary widely from country-to-country and situation-to-situation.  I don’t want to appear to be saying you need to follow these for every trip.  They are however things to consider, especially if travel takes you to places where the government closely scrutinizes visitors.